If the evangelical community is to be a leading voice in the call for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), what steps need to be taken to ignite its voice? In recent years, key leaders within the evangelical community have been instrumental in the support of versions of CIR that attempt to balance moral imperatives of justice and mercy. They have been involved at the political level (issuing formal policy statements and lobbying) as well as at the congregational level (educating and mobilizing faith communities). Enthusiasm, however, appears to be greater among national leaders than among people “in the pews.”
In a recent study of mine, I used data from the Pew Research Center’s July/August 2010 Religion and Public Life Survey and original research undertaken in 2010 (30 personal interviews with key evangelical leaders on immigration) to better understand the influences on white evangelical perspectives on immigration. This study provides important information on how evangelical leaders can educate their congregations on this issue and support the passage of just and merciful versions of CIR.
In this study I sought to better understand recent perspectives of white evangelical Protestants on (1) immigrants, and (2) immigration policy.* In the Pew survey, respondents were asked if they believed immigrants either threaten or strengthen American society and our economy. Secondly, respondents were asked if they believed immigration policy should A) prioritize border security and law enforcement, B) prioritize both border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or C) simply prioritize a path to citizenship. I hypothesized that frequent church attendance, the hearing of messages about immigrants and immigration in church, and proximity to immigrants within congregations would impact one’s perspective on immigrants and immigration policy.
By comparing white evangelical responses with the responses from the overall national sample on these two sets of questions, interesting distinctions arose. First of all, the data shows that white evangelicals see immigrants as more of a threat to both society and the economy than the overall sample of the American population (50.7% versus 35.2%). Also, only 21.0% of white evangelicals—compared to 40.3% of the overall national sample—believe that immigrants strengthen both the economy and the society.
However, experiences within congregations affect these perceptions. Surprisingly, in contrast to prior studies, frequent church attendance alone did not appear to significantly change opinions toward immigrants. Hearing positive messages did.
Among regular churchgoers (attending church at least once or twice a month) whose clergy had addressed the immigration issue, 30.0% of white evangelicals reported hearing a positive message while 31.0% reported hearing a negative message. (Among all religious groups whose clergy had spoken out, 49.0% said the messages were positive and 23.0% were negative; evangelical pastors are more likely to speak negatively about immigrants than other religious traditions).
Of those white evangelicals who say they have heard a positive message from their pastor, the percentage that perceive immigrants as a threat drops significantly from 50.7% to 26.1%. Also, when white evangelicals hear a positive message from their pastor, the percentage that perceives immigrants as contributing to the American society and economy rises considerably from 21.0% to 47.8%. This is not necessarily a causal relationship, as the sort of evangelical who goes to a church that would speak positively about immigrants may already have more positive views about immigrants, but the differences are nonetheless remarkable. And surprisingly, hearing a negative message about immigrants from their pastor is not correlated with white evangelicals being more likely to view immigrants as a threat.
Another consideration is the effect of the presence of immigrants within congregations. I found that white evangelicals who worship together with immigrants are much less likely to see immigrants as a threat (19.6%) than white evangelicals without personal exposure to immigrants (50.7%). At the same time the percentage that believes immigrants are good for the economy and society is higher when immigrants are present in the congregation, increasing from 21.0% to 30.4%.
However, when it comes to policy, frequent proximity to immigrants is not a statistically significant factor in helping determine support for immigrant friendly policies; evangelicals who worship with immigrants are much less likely to see immigrants as a threat, but no more likely to support legalization policies.
On the whole, 54.0% of white evangelicals support a public policy that includes “creating a way for illegal immigrants already here to become citizens if they meet certain requirements” (15.2% say that is their sole priority and 38.8% say they support a policy that creates a path to legal status and secures the borders). Only 42.0% of white evangelicals say that border security should be the sole priority.
When white evangelicals hear a positive message about immigrants from their pastor, however, the percentages change. The proportion of white evangelicals that support a path to legalization increases from 54% to 81.5% amongst those hearing a positive message (32.9% say it is their sole priority, while 48.6% say that legalization and border security are equally important). The percentage of white evangelicals who have heard a positive message who believe that border security only should be the priority falls from 42% to 18.6%.
On the whole, it is clear that efforts by evangelical leaders to influence the laity are making a difference. In particular, if evangelical leaders want lay people to move in their direction on immigration, the methodology of using education and teaching in the congregations and delivering positive messages about immigration seem to be making a difference in terms of lay positions on immigrants and immigration reform. Proximity to immigrants in congregations itself does make a difference in terms of parishioners having positive attitudes toward immigrants, but does not necessarily translate into support for policy reform.
The implications may be that if evangelical leaders are going to help educate not only their congregations on the issue but help move the issue along legislatively, they may need to support a form of immigration reform that pays serious attention to the concerns of their constituents. Comprehensive Immigration Reform that addresses security concerns and does not undercut the rule of law is more likely to gain traction amongst evangelicals than reform that avoids such components. And presumably, to garner broader based support, a temporary legal status/guest worker program (a factor not included in the Pew data but previously shown to be favorable amongst conservatives) should likely be included, in addition to a path to citizenship with qualifications. Through such efforts and priorities, evangelicals may best be able to contribute a distinctive “third way” perspective and provide key political support to bipartisan compromise on a very complex and legislatively intimidating issue.
* Given that a supermajority of Hispanic evangelicals support immigrants and immigration reform, and African-American evangelicals exhibit fairly high support as well, my study is focused on the position of white evangelicals, a population that has been comparatively more reserved on this issue altogether (see Melkonian-Hoover, Review of Faith and International Affairs, Fall 2008).
Ruth Melkonian-Hoover is chair and associate professor of the Political Science Department at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, where she also directs the International Affairs major. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Emory University. Her scholarly interests include Latin America, immigration, women and politics, and religion and international affairs. She has published articles in Social Science Quarterly, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Latin American Perspectives, and Political Research Quarterly.
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